A few flights of stairs above the New Century stage, the members of Shame are quietly congregated in their green room, patiently awaiting to greet a sold-out venue. Just next to a rider that seemed to consist of a loaf of bread and some Mini Eggs, we sat down to talk with frontman, Charlie Steen.
Having just come off of the back of the release of their third album, Food for Worms, Shame are seemingly more confident than ever. While their sophomore release Drunk Tank Pink was in equal parts angry and angular as an album – fuelled by the lockdowns and furious introspection – the band’s new LP has seen them take on a more diverse sound, whilst maintaining a consistently high quality. Now touring to promote this LP, the group get to stretch their bulging live muscles and do what they do best – whip up a frenzy.
Shame are in many ways the epitome of a modern touring band, with a witty social media presence and an all-too-important knack for not taking themselves too seriously. This was best platformed in their lockdown series ‘Shamestation’ – hilarious interviews on YouTube with everyone from black midi’s Geordie Greep to Mel B (of Spice Girls fame, of course). We were eager to know if this was a thread they would continue, and Steen eagerly explained: “We’ve moved it into a podcast format. We’ve done two so far, one with Reggie Watts when we were over in LA, and then one with Kneecap as well…. I think the aim is to have people maybe not necessarily involved in the music industry.”
The mention of David Thewlis’ cameo in Yard Act’s video for ‘100% Endurance’ was met with wry smiles, alongside the various names the interviewees had suggested for the next Shame album title. I guess we won’t in fact see a Shame album entitled ‘Meat and Cakes’ anytime soon…
A few of the artists interviewed on ‘Shamestation’ in the lockdown-fuelled artistic void were bands of Brixton’s now infamous venue, The Windmill – a place dear to the hearts of the South London group. On being asked whether Steen believed them to have ‘graduated’ the small venue, he remarked: “I feel like in reflection that you sort of understand the value of these things. When we went there it was because that was where we’d be able to play”.
“I don’t know if it’s something that you graduate from…. you go to like Japan or America or Australia and people are aware of The Windmill, whereas it still doesn’t really feel like anything other than a great venue. We’re still close to the people there.”
Mentioning fellow students of the scene – namely Clottie Cream of Goat Girl and Asha Lorenz of Sorry – as having been secondary-school and art-school mates was an intimate detail as we attempted to piece together the organic Brixton-scene that seems to have spawned so much, including Shame’s newest LP, Food for Worms.
“We wrote this album for two shows at the windmill and played it there… We kind of got set a challenge; two weeks to come up with as many songs for two shows at The Windmill… they changed over time, but the core of, I’d say, about six songs of Food for Worms formed.”
This ‘challenge’ has spawned one of their most honest and coherent albums to date, with singles ‘Fingers of Steel’ and ‘Adderall’ quickly consuming fans’ hearts and even the odd BBC Radio 6 playlist spot.
“The challenge came because we had the whole of 2021 Trying to write and nothing was coming. And so at the start of that New Year, the challenge came we were away at that time… And then we did two shows: one was on a Friday and was on a Sunday. We played nine new songs and a total of six of them made it and they sounded like shit. Then on Sunday, they sounded 50 times better. So it was this whole thing of, you know you can do rehearsals and rehearse and rehearse and rehearse but, you know, you’re only gonna get it under your skin if you start playing it live.”
Shame are undoubtedly a force of live music, with their shows being adolescent, feral fun for all ages. However, previous to making Food for Worms, the group had never recorded an album live. “I think it was more so we needed to play them [the songs] live. We couldn’t rely on anything else. The songs had to sound good…. there are some songs on Drunk Tank Pink that we find hard to get as good live as they are on record. Whereas we kind of wanted to look at it the other way.”
“We’ve probably done about 700 gigs, and we’ve probably spent in total 50 days in a studio or something like that… it’s about kind of the mistakes. Like Yankees, for example, was actually a lot slower than it is on the record. And that just came from playing it over and over and over again and kind of, you know, forgetting about that for a second… there are strengths and weaknesses to it, but we always wanted to record live and happy we got to do it.”
The only song not recorded live on the LP is the album’s beautiful acoustic middle-eight, ‘Orchid’. Steen explained this slightly new psychedelic direction as the group “very much experimenting”, with guitarist Sean Coyle-Smith having written the core of the tune on an acoustic before the rest of the band padded out the track. “But yeah, everything else [on the album] is au naturale.”
Brimming with influences, Steen mentioned Larry McMurty’s tale cattle-driving in the old American West, ‘Lonesome Dove’ as key for the lyrical content of the record, as well as certain films: Martin McDonagh’s tragicomedy The Banshees of Inisherin and Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I to name but a few.
While it would not be stretch to describe Food for Worms as an ‘ambitious’ LP – as they foray into different genres – the group’s ambitions seem slightly different. “I think, with this with the last album, and with COVID we pumped trying to get into the charts and trying to do this and blah, which, you know, there’s nothing else to do…. I think, personally, my main hope is just sort of on shows… I think the charts, I don’t think they contain the same longevity as ticket sales and good shows do… it’s the only way to pay the bills.”
As jarringly frank as that is, their ambitions lay more in the sustainability of their brilliant project – being able to get their voices out to Europe and the U.S through touring, hopefully all while keeping the gas and electric paid… The stark realities of musicianship are never far away from our favourite bands, however Shame have always provided a joyfully defiant voice – laughing in that face of worry.
Being the 9th day of the group’s tour promoting Food for Worms, it was clear the group were well in the swing of things, but as many know, Manchester is no ordinary city to play – especially not to a hungry thousand fans. Steen was eager to emphasise their collective love of the city and their connection to the student community: “We played YES… the socially distanced show, and the Glastonbury warm up show there… This was a place where a lot of people came to uni from London, that we were mates with, so when we would come through here, we’d stay in their halls in first year. In Fallowfield and all around.”
As one of many bands considered protégés of The Fall, enquiring about whether they felt the spectre of Mark E. Smith haunting the city seemed only natural. “The first time we ever came to Manchester, the first pub, we walked into Mark E. Smith was sat at the bar. So, I’d like to think it’s quite realistic.”
“We were playing there with a band called The Garden who we were supporting… And then upstairs… he was at the bar.” After Charlie had asked the bartender if that truly was the Godfather of Post-Punk, he told us she replied: “Don’t talk to him. She was like, just don’t try it. And I was like, okay, so I went and got a pint and sat at the table next to him. And I don’t know what I was hoping… there was no interaction. We got to play with them once, and we didn’t speak to him then. He called Eddie a spotty southern c*nt and that’s the only introduction we had.” Safe to say, the band have seen a side of this city a good many people may never do – a perspective warped by green-rooms and the stage. Still, it makes for a good story.
Throughout our time with Charlie Steen, one thing was clear: humour is integral to this band. Even with the rest of the group phasing in and out of our conversation, it usually took the form of joking, something that stretches into their pan chance for the occasional Christmas single. The likes of their version of ‘Feliz Navidad’ proved an unusual comic success in December of 2018, with the overzealous use of autotune demonstrating their attitudes towards the often all-too-serious pop world clearly. After probing if one was in the pipeline, Steen replied in typical fashion: “Someone will probably point another gun to our head.” That one line about sums the band up; defiantly complicit in this strange pop world.
By the time we returned to the crowd, eager fans decorated the vast space, slowly edging forward. Some, no doubt, were wishing to be under Steen’s feet when he inevitably marched into the sea of bodies; others, hanging back, would no doubt simply want to witness a band at their best. Either way, just before they all emerged, the room was full and eagerly anticipating what is next from Shame.
Food for Worms is out now.